Breakthrough in Translating Proto-Elamite, World’s Oldest Undeciphered Writing
Specialists believe that the oldest undeciphered writing system will be decoding 5,000-year-old secrets.
“I hope we are actually about to make a breakthrough,” said Jacob Dahl, a fellow at Oxford Wolfson‘s College and Director of the Ancient World Research Cluster.
Live Science has confirmed that Dahl’s secret weapons can see this writing more clearly than ever.
In a room high up in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, above the Egyptian mummies and fragments of early civilizations, a big black dome is clicking away and flashing out the light.
This device is providing the most detailed and high-quality images ever taken of these elusive symbols cut into clay tablets.
It’s being used to help decode a writing system called proto-Elamite, used between around 3200 BC and 2900 BC in a region now in the southwest of modern Iran.
The Oxford team thinks that they could be on the brink of understanding this last great remaining cache of undeciphered texts from the ancient world.
Dahl, from the Oriental Studies Faculty, shipped his image-making device on the Eurostar to the Louvre Museum in Paris, which holds the most important collection of this writing.
The clay tablets were put inside this machine, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging System, which uses a combination of 76 separate photographic lights and computer processing to capture every groove and notch on the surface of the clay tablets.
It allows a virtual image to be turned around, as though being held up to the light at every possible angle.
So far Dahl has deciphered 1,200 separate signs, but he said that after more than 10 years study much remains unknown, even such basic words as “cow” or “cattle”.
Dahl believes that the writing has proved so hard to interpret because the original texts seem to contain many mistakes – and this makes it extremely tricky for anyone trying to find consistent patterns.
“The lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless,” Dahl said.
Unlike any other ancient writing style, there are no bi-lingual texts and few helpful overlaps to provide a key to these otherwise arbitrary looking dashes and circles and symbols.
Proto-Elamite writing is the first-ever recorded case of one society adopting writing from another neighbouring group.
However, when these proto-Elamites borrowed the concept of writing from the Mesopotamians, they made up an entirely different set of symbols. The writing was the first ever to use syllables, Dahl said.
Dahl added that with sufficient support within two years this last great lost writing could be fully understood.